This updated version of Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie, drops the Miss, and plunges us into a modernised upstairs-downstairs conundrum. In Polly Stenham’s update, it’s Julie’s birthday, and she’s having a techno rave in her father’s living room. The ‘help’, Jean and Kristina, remain in the concrete, stark, well-lit kitchen below. However, for Jean this is not enough, and as Vanessa Kirby’s Julie seeks to draw him into her world, he abandons his fiancé Kristina for a taste of the ‘good life’.
An athletic Kirby, who puts her all into the role of emotionally unstable Julie, plays the wild child turned tragic 33-year-old protagonist. As she descends from manipulative bitch into an ever more child-like woman open to delusions, Kirby demonstrates her prowess. It’s a great performance, with some fantastic comic timing. However, it is let down by the slightly too reductive script, and perhaps most importantly, the lack of chemistry between Kirby and Jean played by Eric Kofi Abrefa.
Attraction on either side feels unexpected and forced, and despite their best efforts it is the failure to create this that lets the play down. Despite birds being blended to death and fantastic dance sequences where the agile cast curl themselves into the many dishwashers – a hilarious detail to the set that perfectly embodies the absurd excessiveness of wealth – Julie edges on the side of dull. Checking your watch in a play of only an hour and 20 minutes is never a good sign.
The really sad thing about Julie is you never care about her. The tension between hating for her, but an underlying pity, never really comes into play. There are too many other issues that remain somewhat left, that you become more preoccupied with Jean’s inexplicable betrayal of Kristina, and ultimately the racism that is left to simmer, unpicked and unexplored. That said, Thalissa Teixeira puts in the most heartfelt and impactful performance of them all, and her speech on discovering her fiancé’s adultery is the one that lingers in your mind once the curtain has fallen.
What you leave the Lyttelton Theatre with is a sense of sadness that society can divide people so, and marvelling at the fantastic set as designed by Tom Scutt – one of the best I have seen at the National, or in fact, ever. This is a beautiful staging, yet sadly the play has become a little hollow, so that despite the best efforts of the actors, it just doesn’t quite do the job.
Julie is playing at the National Theatre until 8 September
Photo: Richard H Smith